Down into the mine
Trip Start Mar 01, 2006
551Trip End Dec 01, 2007
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We went to the mines with a tour. There was Amit and Brian, plus Claire the South African we had met the evening before, a couple of Aussies, a couple of Belgians and an Englishman.
At the time when London or Paris were hosting under 100.000 inhabitants, Potosi reached a population of 160.000. The Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) was full of silver, and the Spaniards had set a huge industry to extract the ore, refine it into minerals and ultimately silver, and make coins that were shipped to the Spanish Crown. It is said that over 8 million persons died in or around the mines in the past 4 centuries: In addition to slavery and forced labour conditions, the dust and minerals present in the mines were (and still are) toxic. Add to that the extensive use of mercury as a refining agent, and you have a greater scale picture of what happened (happens) in many parts of he world.
Our guide was a local, very exited, I found him annoying at first. We took a bus up the city, towards cerro Rico mountain, and we stopped in a house to get overalls, helmets, and rubber boots. We were also given lamps and batteries, and then headed to the miner market. There we bought presents for the miners: drinks, dynamite, and coca leaves. These are useful to the miners, who do not work for a company, but really for themselves.
The guide showed us the batons of nitroglycerine, throwing them to the ground to show us how not dangerous it was. Then there was also sodium carbonate peebles, which are used to make the explosion stronger. And detonator and fuses. Ephrain, our guide, set up a detonator in a baton of nitro, added a fuse, passed it around and left it there in the sun for the other 15 minutes he was talking to us. Brian and Amit, as ex-soldiers, were not happy at all with that. Ephrain insisted that it was ok, even kids come there to buy dynamite for their parents.
The miners market gets full in the morning, as it is on the way to the mines: thousands of miners, who work independantky, stop by to buy what they need: tools, gloves, coca leaves, dynamite, etc...
Note that dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel and that the revenues from this invention participated in the funding of the Nobel Prizes...
We also bought a couple more bombs to have our own explosion after the mine visit.
Next stop was a processing plant (smelter, called ingenio): there the ore arrives from the mines. The miners sell their ore to the ingenios, getting paid depending on quantity and quality. The ingenios are private companies, and employ men and women, whereas the free workers in the mines are men only. The ore is composed of 30-35% of minerals (lead, zinc and silver), and 65-70% of waste. The ore is crushed and washed so as to extract the minerals. In the end they get a big paste, dried into mineral mud that is exported to Chile for refining (separation of the lead - zinc - silver).
These plants are very unecological, use a lot of water, and throw away quantities of chemicals into the wild (including arsenic and copper sulfate). Everything goes to the river, and everybody knows that the fish in there are definitley not edible. Still better than the former mercury process, but that is meagre recomfort.
The women working there asked for coca leaves, which visiting tourists usually offer. The coca allows better body functionning at high alitude (ie low oxygen), but the really useful properties are more the pain and hunger suppressing ones.
Off to the mines then. There are numerous mines plunging into Cerro Rico. The one we went to is used by about 200 miners, who work in groups, usually familly. They decide how long they want to work, and extract the ore they then sell to the ingenios. They work for themselves, independently from any company, paying a tax to the government on their sales.
There used to be pure silver in this mountain, but what is extracted today is the complejo (ore), mostly waste with a mix of lead, zinc and silver. Finding ore is pure chance, they a re just digging in random directions hoping that one day they hit the jackpot: a pure silver vein. It's like lottery: same odds to win...
Lights on, we went in, hitting our heads all the time, walking on rails, wondering at what speed trolleys would come our way and break our legs... We met our first miners, sweating their way out of the mine. There was two levels above us, and 4 below. They were coming from -3, carrying 30kg of ore on heir back, more than happy to get our soda and coca leaves.
Our guide started mining when he was 15, and still goes to the mine everyday, for tourists. In the low season he sometimes goes back to work there with his group (brothers and family). He knew most of the miners in that mine.
We went further into the mountain, the heat came. Going down shafts to levels -1 and -2, we were choking wih the dust. We had to have regular breaks, to catch our breath while Ephrain talked about the mines.
Too much to relate there. I will just give the final impresion. Life in the mines is hard. The people go there cause they don't have another job. They start when they are teenagers. Education is mandatory, but nobody checks. So after going to the mine instead of going to school, what is there left for them to do? Yes: dig more. The dust and all the minerals in the air, plus the fumes from the dynamite... give them only one certainty: they will die of a lung disease. With that job they earn more than the minimum wage, so it stays attractive. And there are accidents too, of course.
But that is their life, they "choose" it, in the sense that they feel they have a choice of going or not, and they accept everything that goes with it.
They also know that they are killing their environment.They also know that in a few decades there will be nothing left, and that the city will die. What can they do? They vote, they protest, and they get lies and corruption, history repeated. Today they survive, with an acute sense of their condition, but without a choice: they survive.
And then there are fiestas and big drinking and football games opposing mine groups, TV is there and friends too and problems are forgotten for awhile... life goes on and is happy and sad like anywhere else in the world.
After exiting the mine our guides built up our bombs, lit them and passed them around as the black powder fuses were burning... then ran 30m away, burried them, and ran back.... boom! Interestingly unsafe, but also part of their everyday life.
In the evening, coming back from the internet to go have dinner with the others, at the corner of the street I randomly found Bruno who was smoking a cigarette... After spending nearly a month together in Patagonia, I had last seen him in Chile a few months before. It was good to see him again, and we went for dinner and wine with the others, also meeting up with the Swiss from the tour to Uyuni.
Upon ordering the third bottle of that relatively cheap but excellent Bolivian red, we saw the waiter rusing out and coming back 5 minutes later with the bottle he had just gone to buy.